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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Fake News and Bullying Are More Alike Than You Think

By Peter DeWitt — January 15, 2017 4 min read
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Bullying has been a word we have all heard quite a bit over the years. To some it’s just a word, while to others it has been something taunting them through social media or on the playground. It’s been a reason they don’t want to get up in the morning, and has created physical and psychological bruises that they want to hide.

The National Center for Educational Statistics shows that nearly one in four students has reported being bullied. Bullying is real and it can be harmful, but reported is an important word. There is a fine balance between understanding what bullying is, using it to describe what happened, and the reality of the situation. And before you jump to the conclusion that I am blaming the victim, I am not. The sad reality is that bullying may be used to describe a situation that is not bullying at all.

As a former principal I found that there were students and parents who used the word bullying, when after it was investigated, it was really two friends who had a disagreement and they used the word bullying to describe it. The key for me, was to talk through the situation, and get to the bottom of the issue. This, of course, meant that it was incumbent on me to make sure we clearly defined the behavior of bullying. It was also dependent on how hard I worked in moments leading up to the situation to have relationships with the students so they could talk to me about anything. The conversations only ended when the issue was resolved.

Sadly, it was the cases that went unreported that we had to worry more about. Many cases of bullying never get reported because of the shame the students feel or the fact that they are scared there will be repercussions by the individual or individuals doing the bullying. Those are the situations we have to work harder to get to, but it’s hard to do when we spend our time on situations being called bullying when they really are not.

Which leads to fake news.

What does this have to do with fake news?
The same road is being travelled with the increase in fake news. Fake news, like bullying, is not new. We see fake news every time we stand in the checkout line of our favorite grocery store. Celebrities have sued newspaper organizations because they have reported unfounded and sensational news that is fake. Unfortunately, those newspapers would not be available in the checkout line if people weren’t buying it.

Now, because of last year’s election, the topic of fake news stories has become a story in itself. At President-Elect Donald Trump’s first press conference, he would not take questions from a CNN reporter because he said CNN is fake news. This, of course, happened hours after CNN reported on a story that Russia had seedy information on the President-elect. Those stories, although investigated by intelligence agencies, have gone unfounded so far. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, it has planted a seed in your brain, and the truth may depend on whether you voted for him or not.

During the election fake news stories appeared on Facebook, Twitter and all of the other popular social media outlets. People posted those stories and arguments ensued between friends. The BBC even reported on the uprising of fake news in November, which you can read here. The article shows how easily it can start and how quickly it can spread.

Like bullying, fake news spreads like a wildfire, and puts everyone at a disadvantage. In reality, fake news can be a form of bullying, because it wreaks havoc on the person on the receiving end. However, distinguishing between fake and real is difficult. Is it fake news or is it real and unsubstantiated? Have we checked our sources, and are our sources correct? Is news really fake and harmful just like an argument or issue can be bullying and harmful?

The Lightening Rod
Many times students use the word bullying when it’s not really bullying. There were a few parents who used the word bullying a great deal, and then in talking with their children, they said their parents bully them at home. The word bullying was used so many times it became unclear whether it was bullying or just the new word they would use. The word bullying has become a lightening rod issue for schools over the years.

Will the same happen to fake news? How do we prepare our students for fake news? If we don’t like stories, will we just respond that it’s fake news? In a press conference, if the president-elect doesn’t like a question that comes up, will he merely respond that it’s fake news and move on, when the story is really real? Has this always happened but it’s been more subtle in the past?

Will this be our new normal?

In the End
Bullying is real. When it truly happens it can reek havoc on the individual who is on the receiving end. Bullying can leave long lasting scars, and in extreme examples prevents people from moving on. Sometimes though, it’s really not bullying that is happening as much as it is an argument or miscommunication between friends where one doesn’t get what they want.

Fake news is going down the same path. Many people stand in checkout lines and laugh at the ludicrous stories being reported about celebrities and politicians. Unfortunately, they’re only funny to the person reading them and not to the person they happen to be about.

When children don’t like one another they can easily shout to an adult that they’re being bullied, when that may be the case. And now, people can easily shout that it’s fake news when that really may not be the case. If we can’t get students to differentiate between what bullying is and what it’s not, how can we get students to differentiate between what is fake news and what is not when some adults don’t even know?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the best selling Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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